To some chefs, serving brunch must feel creatively stifling. Even though the playing field presumably includes all of breakfast and lunch, there's an unshakable, pervasive sense that we diners are after a pretty narrow set of foods at brunch. And for every brunch favorite a chef feels compelled to include on his or her menu, a chance at innovation and surprise is stymied.
But Executive Chef Jon Bignelli and his kitchen team at Wylie Dufresne's Alder don't seem too hung up on the mores that constrict our notions about brunch. At the restaurant's newly launched Sunday-afternoon service, which began in November, they either play with our expectations or dispense with them entirely.
The dish of Pickled Beets ($13) aptly demonstrates their approach. The beet salad, a dining-world darling getting long in tooth these days, feels refreshed here by a blanket of sweet and fluffy coconut "ricotta"—in fact a dairy-free concoction of agar and fresh coconut. (Better brunch through science!) A sprinkling of cereal-like crunchy bits added textural complexity, although I couldn't discern where the Thai basil promised on the menu came into play.
Brunchers who lean towards savory will be much more smitten by the Scrambled Eggs ($16), which arrive beautifully prepared (with a hint of cheese, perhaps?) at the bottom of a bowl and topped with smoked brook trout and slices of grilled eggplant. I appreciated what seemed like unusual serviceware for scrambled eggs; the bowl allows you to easily dig around for perfectly composed bites of warm, fluffy eggs, delicately smoky fish, and earthy eggplant.
Brunch wouldn't be brunch without sides. Alder complies with this dictum, but not without thoughtful touches. The Tahini Yogurt Pine Nut Granola ($8) upgrades a typically uninspired brunch mainstay with a tautly conceived harmony of nutty, fruit, and cereal flavors. I'd happily eat a larger portion of this stuff.
No such subtle and subversive theatrics were present, however, in the puck-shaped Biscuit ($4), nestled in a streak of peach butter. It's not a bad biscuit by any means, just dull. It seems out of place among Bignelli's otherwise dynamic cooking.
Alder obliges the seeker of heartier sustenance (aka the hung-over) with Beans and Toast ($16), a superb and comforting riff on the classic English breakfast. A museum-quality fried egg crowns a bacon-studded scoop of tender baked beans, which themselves straddle a thick, chewy slab of brown bread. There's no chemistry to review here, just great ingredients speaking for themselves. And in the kitchen's restraint lies a big part of Alder's charm: not only is the place fun and relaxed, it doesn't sacrifice the goal of good food simply to cook things differently for their own sake.